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Column: Indiana’s Owen showed humanity in midst of war

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For 100 years, a magnificent bust has gazed out from an alcove of the Indiana Statehouse. The elaborate sculpture depicts Civil War Col. Richard Owen. Frozen in bronze, he is wearing a cape and jacket with stripes on his sleeves and the collar turned up behind his stately head.

The commanding bust was a gift to Indiana from veterans of the Army of the Confederate States of America. In case your history is a bit rusty, Indiana was a Union state. Why would Confederates honor an “enemy” soldier?

The answer is this: Kindness and courtesy do not take sides.

During the Civil War, the Indiana State Fairgrounds became a prisoner of war camp to contain captured “rebels” hauled up from fighting in the South. In those days, the fairgrounds were located in Indianapolis between 19th and 22nd streets where the Herron-Morton neighborhood is today.

Named for then Gov. Oliver P. Morton, this was not your usual prisoner of war camp. At least, not while Union Owen was in charge. Biographer Victor Lincoln Albjerg wrote that, as commandant, Owen was “firm without being harsh, gentle without being weak, and sympathetic without being sentimental.”

Owen ran Camp Morton under a strict set of regulations. Yet, within the application of these rules was the spirit of a man who believed that all people recognize fair treatment and respond to it in kind.

The prison grew to contain more than 4,000 soldiers. Owen visited with them, saw about their needs, passed out reading material and invited local clergy into the camp to counsel those seeking spiritual help.

In the beginning, daily rations of bread were purchased from a commercial bakery. Owen quickly established a camp bake house and thus saved over $2,000. With this, he established a fund to provide prisoners with tobacco, stationery, stamps, scissors (for cutting hair) needle and thread, additional vegetables and a good supply of molasses (a camp favorite.)

It was a prison camp, yes, but that did not mean that there could not be a little joy. The men were permitted to form glee clubs. Residents living near Camp Morton sometimes heard the strains of “Dixie” wafting over the neighborhood.

Every Civil War soldier, in blue or gray uniform, liked to send a photograph of himself to loved ones back home. Realizing this, Owen allowed local “daguerreians” to set up in camp.

Surely the families of these men must have been relieved by what they learned in letters sent home about this Yankee warden.

After only three months, though, the needs of the Union Army forced the transfer of Owen’s regiment to the battlefront. Confederate inmates at Camp Morton pleaded for their commandant to stay, signing a petition citing his fairness and kindness and pledging to “be good” for the rest of the war.

It was a heartfelt gesture, but the petition could not alter the plans of the Union Army. Owen and his 60th Indiana Volunteers were soon in the thick of the fighting. In the fall of 1862, they were captured in fighting at Munfordsville, Ky. The tables were turned. They were prisoners of the Confederate Army.

As they say, it pays to be nice to people. Owen’s reputation preceded him. Southern Gen. Simon Buckner personally called upon the Indiana officer to express his appreciation for the kindness shown his comrades at Camp Morton. The 60th Regiment was soon paroled, and Owen was given full liberty.

A year later, he hung up his uniform to become a professor of geology at Indiana University. He also served a short term as the first president of Purdue University.

The years rolled by, but Owen was not forgotten by the boys of Camp Morton. Nearly 50 years after their incarceration in Indianapolis, the gray-bearded veterans took up a collection to honor their old commandant.

“For his courtesy and kindness” reads the inscription on the magnificent sculpture created by Tennessee artist Belle Kinney. Unveiled in a grand ceremony in June 1913, the bust was dedicated by over 500 Civil War veterans from both sides.

This year, a June 10 ceremony at the Statehouse will celebrate the 100th anniversary of that celebration. North and South will unite again with Owen’s bust flanked on both sides by soldiers in blue and gray. Indiana will refresh its memory of one of its own who, even in the midst of war, demonstrated courtesy, kindness and man’s humanity to man.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood.

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